Knock Knock

Story No. 292 Who's There?
Production Code Series 10, episode 4
Dates May 6, 2017

With Peter Capaldi
Written by Mike Bartlett Directed by Bill Anderson
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: Bill moves into an old creaky house. But is something living in the walls?


Within the Walls by Niall Jones 30/12/21

One of the biggest differences between companions in the revived series of Doctor Who and the original series is that companions now often have their own lives outside of travelling with the Doctor. As a theme, this tension was explored most thoroughly in Series 8, where Clara's attempts to hold down a teaching career and nurture a relationship with her boyfriend, all the while keeping her travels with the Doctor secret, become increasingly untenable. It is also present as a theme in Series 10, with its fourth episode, Knock Knock, focusing on Bill's life outside the TARDIS.

For Bill, living a normal life includes finding a house to rent with fellow students. In Knock Knock's cold open, the Doctor is conspicuous by his absence. Instead, a Little Mix-soundtracked montage of Bill and friends trying - and failing - to find suitable accommodation makes it very clear that the episode takes place in her world. The presence of the Doctor is an intrusion. As Bill puts it to him: 'this is the part of my life that you're not in'.

Throughout the episode, Bill's reluctance to have the Doctor around is a source of humour. Much to the Doctor's displeasure, she passes him off as her grandfather. Despite her increasingly explicit hints that he should go and leave her to settle in with her new housemates, the Doctor sticks around like an embarrassing family member.

Of course, the Doctor has a perfectly good reason for sticking around. The situation that Bill and her friends find themselves in is deeply odd: an old mansion that creaks even when there is no wind and has a tower to which entry is forbidden, rented to them by a mysterious old man who appears from out of the blue and requires only that they 'sign the contract'? Alarm bells should be ringing. Interestingly, Bill senses that things are off from the get-go but suppresses these feelings. Her desire for things to be normal triumphs over her intuitive sense that things are in fact far from it. When her housemate, Pavel, fails to emerge from his room, classical music playing on a stuck loop, she accepts her friends' reassurances that 'he just does that'.

The Doctor's response that 'nobody just does anything', however, turns out to be correct. In one of the most arresting images of a visually striking episode, the audience discovers his fate. He has become trapped within one of the house's ravenous wooden walls, like Han Solo frozen in carbonite. Wood has become the enemy, trapping the students within the house, devouring them.

The wood is home to alien woodlice, or Dryads, as the Doctor names them. Although not dangerous individually, they can swarm over a person, destroying them. The swarming scenes are visceral and frightening, playing on common fears of insects and claustrophobia. Despite the damage they cause, however, they are not monsters, just aliens who have been exploited by the Landlord for his own mysterious purposes.

Played by David Suchet, the Landlord is an ominous figure who seems out of place in the twenty-first century; scrupulously polite and archaically dressed, he skulks around the house, popping up at unexpected moments. Suchet is very good as the Landlord, downplaying his sinister aspects, instead presenting him as kind and attentive, if a little creepy. The result of this is to accentuate his darker edges. For example, the emphatic delivery of the line 'you don't', when asked how you access the tower stands out against his generally genial manner of speaking. The Doctor has his suspicions about him from the very beginning, leading the audience to think that he is the episode's villain. In a sense, he is, as he turns out to be responsible for what happens to Bill's friends. Unlike Series 10's previous human villain, Lord Sutcliffe in Thin Ice, however, the Landlord is presented as a pitiable figure. His character changes once the truth behind his actions is revealed. He goes from being in absolute control of his words and emotions to being petulant and angry - a child in an old man's body. Suchet's performance here is absolutely phenomenal, expressing this change in character though small but telling actions, such as wiping away tears with balled fists. The episode's climax is highly moving, revealing the Landlord as a tragic character whose humanity led him to do inhuman things. For a while, even the Doctor doesn't have a response to what he has done.

During the episode's climax, the Doctor seems to affirm Bill's desire for a normal life alongside her extraordinary travels when he opens the house's shutters: 'New friends. Fireworks! That's what life should be!' Here, ordinary life intrudes into an extraordinary situation. It's the opposite of how the episode began, with Bill perceiving the Doctor's presence as bringing the strange and alien into a place where those things don't belong. These juxtapositions reveal the extent to which, in Doctor Who, there is no separation between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Instead, strangeness, wonder and terror are found in even the most conventional situations.